You’ve made a great website, and it looks fantastic, but what happens from there? Do you know where people click? How do they find the information they’re looking for? Where do they get stuck? What if they land on the wrong product? Or leave your website before you even have the chance to give them the right information? Website tracking allows you to answer these questions, which means you can make the optimal site experience for your users. 

Let’s look at what website tracking is, how and why websites do it, and what is the right way to do it.

What is website tracking?

Website tracking is the process of collecting and analyzing data about how people behave when they visit a website. It’s a crucial tool for any website owner. It allows you to identify everything from the number of visitors that come to your site, where they came from, how long they stay, and how they interact with the site while they’re there. It helps you determine what you’re doing right, what needs improvement, and what needs to change on your site.

There are two kinds of web tracking: first-party and third-party. First-party tracking occurs when the site you are visiting directly collects information about you. For example, the IP address or the page visits. Third-party tracking occurs when another site or service tracks user activity across multiple sites.

Why do websites track users?

There are 4.95 billion active internet users in the world. The rise of big data and analytics has created a lot of reasons why websites track users. Many websites do it to improve their products, services, performance, usability, and security. Websites can monitor user activity to understand their visitors and the impressions their sites make.

Some of the key reasons for internet tracking include:

  • Providing tailored user experiences: Businesses track their website visitors to learn more about their online customers and users. By monitoring how users interact with the site, businesses can gain valuable insight into their customers and how they behave online, which can then be used to tailor user experiences. 
  • Measuring success: Tracking website visits helps identify successful campaigns and marketing efforts that are driving traffic to your site. By tracking traffic to a site, you can see which types of content are most popular and which pages get the most traffic. For example, Google Analytics lets you track which pages are performing well by tracking their page views, bounce rates, session duration, etc. This information can help businesses focus on the most successful strategies for their websites and stop wasting time on ineffective strategies.
  • Delivering targeted advertisements:  Targeted advertising enables businesses to display ads that are more relevant to their customers and are therefore more likely to succeed than randomly placed ads. Analytics data help businesses see which types of ads perform best and track the revenue they generate, whether from clicks or purchases. The data also helps businesses ensure that their ads appear in front of the right audience.
  • Tracking conversions: It is important to understand where your leads are coming from, especially if you want to attract new customers. By tracking visitors on your site, you can see which efforts are working and which aren’t so you can invest time and budget accordingly.

How do websites track users?

Websites track you in a bunch of different ways, including mouse tracking, eye tracking, click tracking, etc. Let’s look at the most common methods of website tracking:

IP Tracking

An IP address is a unique number that identifies users’ devices online. Although anyone can see their IP address, its location doesn’t tell them anything personal about users. However, by determining where their device is located, a website can determine what country they are in and even what city or region. This is useful for creating targeted campaigns, as well as for security purposes.

Cookies

Cookies are one of the more common ways websites track you. A cookie is a file that a website stores on a user’s computer or mobile device when you visit them. The files contain information about their activities online allowing sites to remember their preferences and personalize their experience when you revisit them. For example, e-commerce sites use cookies to remember users’ shopping carts even after they close the site.

Around 40% of websites on the web use cookies one way or the other. 

Learn more about tracking cookies.

Fingerprinting

Fingerprinting is a method of tracking that creates a “fingerprint” of each user’s device, based on information like their operating system, screen size, language settings, IP address, and installed browser plugins. This allows websites to create and store a unique profile for each visitor that comes to their site. Browser fingerprinting is done via JavaScript code that runs in the background of your browser and creates a unique identifier for each user.

Tracking pixels

A tracking pixel or a web beacon is an image file (usually a transparent GIF) that contains a code that can “track” if you have opened an email or visited a website. The code is embedded within the image and is not visible to the user. When the user opens the email or visits the website that contains the pixels, the code executes and tracks their activity. This data can then be used by marketers to analyze visitor behavior and optimize their marketing strategies accordingly.  

What is cross-website tracking?

Cross-site Tracking is a technical term that refers to tracking the activity of a user across multiple websites or domains. It is often used for marketing, analyzing and improving the customer experience, and in some cases, fraud detection.

Cross-site tracking can be accomplished by placing a small piece of code on a site that is then used to track the activity of users who visit other websites. The main purpose of cross-site tracking is to determine what products or services are of interest to users who are visiting another website. This allows marketers and webmasters to improve the customer experience on their site by using data from visits to other sites to deliver targeted advertising and relevant content. This process is referred to as remarketing.

For example, this is how cookies retarget visitors:

how cookies track to retarget website visitors
How cookies track website visitors for retargeting

How do privacy laws affect website tracking?

Website tracking and GDPR

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is the most important privacy legislation to be introduced in decades. It provides users with new rights and greater control of their personal data and has already had a dramatic impact on the way website owners deal with user information. 

The GDPR requires website owners to be explicit about how they track users and allow them to opt out of tracking. A website may not use cookies or any other type of technology that tracks user behavior without first obtaining consent. The site must provide notice and an easy way for users to opt out of being tracked. You’ll need to make sure that you can prove consent was given and make it clear how the site uses that data.

Website tracking and CCPA

The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) has been widely considered the biggest step forward in consumer privacy protection in the US.

If a website collects any kind of data on users, the website has to provide notice and an opportunity for the user to opt out of the tracking. Websites must give consumers the right to know what information businesses collect about them, as well as the right to request a copy of that information collected. Businesses are required to disclose the categories of information they collect, as well as their sharing practices. 

How to track website users without violating the law?

All the laws regulating how websites track users do not mean a full stop on track. It means that you should make an extra effort to make it privacy-friendly and put users first. 

website tracking the right way

Here are key requirements to follow if you want to track website users legally, without any violation:

  • Use a secure connection when tracking, collecting, and transferring data.
  • Use trustworthy data tracking tools that are reliable and accurate, yet complies with evolving laws.
  • Ensure you have a legitimate and reasonable purpose for tracking.
  • Explain your data collection practices in the privacy policy on your website and make it easy for users to find.
  • Use a banner or pop-up window to obtain consent from users before collecting any data.
  • Ask clear, specific questions when requesting consent
  • Avoid pre-checked boxes or checkboxes for asking consent to track users. Users should actively check the box themselves and give their consent.
  • Allow users to opt out of tracking by providing an easy way to withdraw consent.

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  • Keep data access restricted to those with a legitimate need to know, and keep track of who has access.
  • Anonymize user data before storing them.
  • Ensure the security of data, including protection from external intruders (hackers) and internal misuse (your own employees).
  • Allow users to request a copy of their personal data, and ensure the user has the option to update or delete the information you have collected.

How to stop website tracking? 

If you are a website user, there are many reasons why you might want to stop website tracking. The most common of these is to reduce the amount of personally identifiable information that websites can gather about you. Whatever your reason for wanting to stop website tracking, there are many ways to do it. Some of them take time and effort on your part, but others require almost no effort at all. Keep in mind not all of them are foolproof methods.  

  • Limit the information you share online: When using the web, think twice before submitting personally identifiable information.
  • Browse in incognito or private mode: Incognito mode is a setting in your browser that allows you to surf the web without leaving a history of your browsing patterns. The website won’t be able to see any data outside of your current browsing session. 
  • Use anti-tracking tools: Use browser extensions, apps, privacy-friendly browsers, and/or search engines that block trackers. For example, a virtual private network (VPN) hides your IP address as you move through the web, preventing sites from tracking your browsing habits. You can also use settings on your browser that block trackers such as those in Firefox and Safari.
  • Clear website data: Clear your browser’s cache, history, or other data that may be tracking your computer use regularly. It’s easy to check cookies on a website
  • Enable Do Not Track (DNT): Browsers such as Chrome and Firefox include an option called “Do Not Track” that blocks trackers. However, this option is turned off by default in most browsers, so you’ll have to manually enable it. The downside is that not all websites respect the DNT signal.
  • Log out of social media when not in use: To prevent Facebook and Twitter from gathering information about your browsing habits on other websites, try staying logged out when you’re not using them.
  • Block cookies: You can block all cookies (not recommended) or third-party cookies so they don’t store any information. This can make it harder for websites to track you. However, some websites may break or malfunction.
  • Block tracking cookies: Some websites will provide you with a privacy policy that allows you to opt out of tracking cookies.

Frequently asked questions

What is tracking on a website?

Tracking on a website is the act of collecting information about the user’s activity on a website. It can be used to learn more about your users and to make your website better. Tracking can be done either through a third-party service or by directly adding code to your site. For example, Google Analytics records page views, the time spent on each page, bounce rate, and search keywords.

What is web tracking used for?

Web tracking is used for collecting valuable information about website visitors and how they interact with the site. This information is then used to customize the browsing experience for users to increase their level of engagement with the site, and also in the digital economy as a basis for analytics, marketing, and advertising.

Is website tracking illegal?

In theory, website visitor tracking isn’t illegal; it allows websites to deliver better services. However, it has become clear in recent years that users are concerned about their privacy online. In response, many countries have passed legislation to prevent tracking or at least make it clear when it goes on. 

Does website tracking affect SEO?

No, website tracking does not directly affect the SEO of your website. Search engines will still crawl your site, regardless of whether or not you have code that tracks user behavior on your pages. You might see an impact on rankings if you implement a third-party analytics tool that slows down your page load times. 

Does website tracking affect page load speed?

Yes, it can impact page load times depending on how many scripts are running as well as how these scripts are configured and implemented. Your site may load slowly if you’ve implemented multiple scripts from third-party plugins and services.